SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 9, 2007

He’s On To Me

 

Chuck and I left the bar about 8:30. Although we’d kept in touch, we hadn’t seen each other in oh, at least seven or eight years. Part of the reason is that he’s a musician, and tours a lot. The bigger reason, though, is that I’m a creepy shut-in. It was time, we figured, to finally get together for a long-promised drink.

      Well, we’d met up around four at a bar not too far from my apartment. I drank beer, he drank tequila straight, and we had a very lively and animated discussion about many things, most of which became a little blurry as the hours wore on.

      Shortly before his shift ended, the bartender—a kind and wonderful man, but a minion of Satan nevertheless—pulled out the bottle of Jägermeister and started pouring shots.

      “Oh, no, no, no . . . “ I said. I’d had some recent unpleasantness with that particular libation, and didn’t care to repeat it. Not yet, anyway. But Chuck threw his back and ordered another tequila.

      By the time we left, I was doing okay. I could stand upright and walk a reasonably straight line. I pulled out the cane and got ready to head home, where I had dinner waiting. But when we hit the air and I took Chuck’s elbow, I could feel him veering almost immediately. The further we walked, the more he began stumbling. He stopped several times to reorient himself on the sidewalk, but once he began walking again, he seemed just as lost.

      I’ve had more than my share of experience on both sides of the drunk equation over the years, and it was clear he was in pretty bad shape. It took an awfully long time to maneuver our way up the crooked sidewalk, and by the time we finally reached my block, he was walking bent over at the waist, as if he was looking for something small on the ground. He was also giggling a lot, and swerving toward the street every time my grip relaxed. I, meanwhile, was trying to keep him headed in a straight line, which is no easy task when you’re using a cane.

      Now Chuck, see, partly through the songs he’s written and partly through people’s interpretations of those songs, had a bit of a drunken reputation. (Ahem.) We’d drunk together in the past, though, and I’d never seen him like this.

      Last time I was in that kind of shape I woke up in Bellevue, so it was clear I couldn’t just point him toward the subway and give him a shove before going upstairs to eat my sandwiches.

      “C’mon,” I said, trying to hoist him upright. “Blind leading the drunk. I’m taking you to the train.” It wasn’t that far out of the way, and leaving him to his own devices at that point would’ve amounted to negligent homicide.

      So on we careened, with me holding on tight, trying to tap out a straight line and avoid the other people on the sidewalk that evening. It was mighty slow going.

      I decided later that this is the role I was destined to fill in that neighborhood—providing the other genteel residents with occasional Felliniesque tableaus.

      I don’t know where we were, exactly, how far we’d gotten, when I felt his feet go out from under him. Then I felt him collapse into me. Then I found myself on the pavement, with Chuck on top of me, my hat and cane both missing.

      “Hey—hey!” I heard a concerned citizen yell, “you’d better get up—you’re in the middle of the street and there are cars coming!”

      Great—with Chuck dressed in black, too. We’d look like a speed bump.

      Now, Chuck isn’t a big guy by any stretch, but he is physically dense. Denser than me, anyway, so the prospect of getting him off me, and upright, and out of the road before the cars hit us wasn’t easy.

      “C’mon—” I wheezed as I pushed at him, “Up we go. Car’s coming.”

      With the help of three passers-by, he was lifted from me, and I shoved myself upright. How we ended up in the street, I have no idea.

      “You okay?” one of the strangers asked as he handed me my hat.

      “Oh yeah,” I lied. “You bet.” (My arm, neck, back and leg wouldn’t hurt until the following morning.)

      I took Chuck by the elbow once again and, after making sure I was still on the sidewalk, continued stumbling and tapping toward the subway.

      When we reached the corner where we needed to turn—a mere block from the subway station—Chuck went down again. He missed me this time, thank God, but spilled the contents of the bag he was carrying all over the sidewalk. Books, a glasses case, a cell phone, pens, a lighter, lord knows what else.

      Oh, Jesus Christ.

      I stood there leaning on my cane as he (still sprawled on the pavement) slowly retrieved everything and tried to place it back in his bag.

      Once he’d collected everything, I put out my hand and he made an effort to stand, but in so doing, grabbed the bag by the wrong end, spilling everything back out on to the sidewalk.

      Then he fell over again.

      This scene repeated itself for the next forty-five minutes, as I tried to help him up, he giggled, and spilled and refilled his bag over and over again. After awhile, he stopped trying, and simply lay down on his side.

      “You need, umm, some . . . help?” someone asked.

      “Oh, no no,” I said. “We’ll be fine, thanks.” Last thing we needed was the cops or a couple of EMS techs showing up.

      Finally, after much encouragement and heaving, I was able to pull him to his feet. But now he’d left his bag on the pavement.

      “Stay right where you are,” I said. “Don’t move at all. I’ll get it.”

      Not about to let him bend over again at this point, I reached down and grabbed the bag myself. But of course I grabbed the wrong end, dumping everything out again.

      “Aww, shit!”

      In a panic, knowing gravity was at work and so my time was limited, I scrambled around for whatever I could find in the darkness. I knew I didn’t find everything, but I hoped I had enough.

      Holding on to the bag myself, I grabbed his elbow, and jogged him across the street.

      “What’s the deal” he slurred at me.

      “Whaddaya mean?”

      He stopped walking.

      “What’s . . . the deal?

      “Just walking you to the train, is all.”

      “You know what I mean.”

      “Pardon?”

      “You know what I mean.” There was a hint of menace creeping into his voice. I’d seen it happen before with others who’d had a bit too much. Here came the paranoia.

      He confirmed that when he mumbled, “I’m on to you.”

      “Okay,” I said, trying to nudge him a little further up the sidewalk. Best thing to do is keep ‘em moving. But Chuck wasn’t budging.

      “Yeah . . . I’m on to you.” He leaned in real close. “So just tell me—what’s the deal?”

      “I . . . ” I said, “I guess I really don’t know.”

      “Oh you know, all right.” He started laughing loudly. “Oh, you bet you know.”

      I was getting the unpleasant sense that he was going to swing on me at any minute. “Just going to the train,” I said. “That’s all. You’re going home.”

      “Yeah,” he sneered, as we walked a few more yards. Then he stopped and turned again. He grabbed me in a mighty bear hug. “I love you, man!”

      “Ooof,” I said as he squeezed me tight. “Umm . . . ”

      He released me, and promptly stumbled backward into someone’s flower garden.

      “Yeah,” he mumbled, as I pulled him free from the geraniums, “I know you, all right. So why won’t you tell me what the real deal is?”

      Once the mood swings start coming that close together, it’s best not to encourage them, so I said nothing. Instead, I continued urging him toward the subway entrance, just a few short yards ahead. I was worried about the prospect of getting him down two flights of stairs. That wasn’t going to be much fun, but I’d deal with it it when we got there.

      “I’m on to you,” he repeated. Then he turned, tore his arm away from mine, and ran down the sidewalk, vanishing into the night.

      Oh Jesus Christ, I thought, at the same time noting that it was pretty remarkable that someone who couldn’t stand upright just a minute earlier could suddenly run like the wind.

      I stood there for a moment, considering my options and listening for the sound of Chuck collapsing into someone’s garbage cans, or the screech of car tires. Neither came.

      I slowly began tapping down the sidewalk, swinging the cane in wide arcs in the hopes of hitting a prone body, stopping every few steps to look behind me for some reason.

      “Are you looking for something?” an older gentleman asked as he passed me.

      “Friend of mine,” I said. “He seems to be a little out of his head tonight.”

      “That pretty much describes everyone in this neighborhood,” he said as he continued walking. “But if I see him, I’ll send him in your direction.”

      “Thank you kindly.”

      I went up and down the sidewalk a couple times, calling his name. Then I gave up and went home. It was pointless.

      About an hour after I got home and ate my sandwiches, the phone rang. It was a woman’s voice, and she sounded worried. Then she mentioned Chuck. I picked up the phone.

      It was an old friend of Chuck’s named Sandy. It seems the story goes a little something like this:

      Two girls found all those things on the sidewalk that I missed when I was trying to refill Chuck’s bag. Being rare and elusive actual good citizens, they found Sandy’s name and number on Chuck’s cell phone, and called to let her know they had all his stuff.

      Then Sandy, knowing that Chuck was meeting me for (ahem) a couple of drinks that night, called me to find out if he was at my place.

      I pretty much told her the above story, ending with Chuck running off into the darkness.

      Well, she hopped in a car and drove over to pick up the stuff the girls had found, then swung by my place to pick up Chuck’s bag. Then she was off to start checking the hospitals and bars.

      I went to bed.

      The next morning, there were four emails waiting from Chuck, who was apparently still quite alive after staying upright long enough to hail a cab and take it home, arriving there even before Sandy had reached my place.

      So all was well.

      Chuck called that afternoon to repeatedly apologize for his behavior the previous night. He had no recollection whatsoever of what had happened, exactly, so I filled him in (perhaps a bit too gleefully). Glee aside, I was awfully glad he was alive. And hell, we even learned that there are a few decent people left in the world.

      After two more days of apologizing, Chuck and I started figuring out when we could meet up for a another drink.

 

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